Shantih Shantih Shantih, wrote Eliot in the final lines of ‘The Waste Land’, a fragment pillaged from the Hindu Upanishads. It is bewitching, it is intensely mournful, almost inexplicable, and today in particular, it is the most poignant expression of ultimate resignation.
Along with David Dimbleby, JK Rowling and a good chunk of the country’s students, among a vast array of others from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, I stayed up all night to watch the results of the EU referendum come flooding in over the airwaves and through the slippery plumbing of the social media pipework. And, just before 5am, the BBC called game, set, match for the “Leave” campaign.
Newcastle was the signal fire that first spelled doom for those championing solidarity with Europe, bringing in a tiny “Remain” majority despite confident projections that it would be much higher. This was almost identical to the role of the Dundee result in the Scottish referendum, which in the same way brought in a much smaller win for the “Yes” campaign than predicted, crippling them for the rest of the count.
But this was by no means the first speed bump of the night that was last night. Next came Sunderland, then Swansea, the latter with a huge “Leave” majority, a trend that was incidentally set for the rest of rural Wales in stark contrast with cosmopolitan Cardiff. And when Birmingham, with its 700,000 or so votes, came in with a “Leave” win, all hope was lost. Though it was a narrow margin the fact that “Leave” triumphed at all was unprecedented, the great swathe of votes in the region therefore serving to just about cancel each other out. The disappointing Euroscepticism of the outer London boroughs nailed the coffin shut despite soaring “Remain” majorities in the likes of Lambeth, Hackney, Camden, and the rest of the city. Scotland of course voted “Remain” pretty decisively (albeit with a 67% turnout versus the 85% of September 2014 and the 72% of yesterday’s national average), but so did Northern Ireland, prompting calls from Sinn Féin as well as NI’s Deputy First Minister to reignite the debate for a unified Ireland. One can hardly imagine a UK consisting of just England and Wales, the very prospect of which seems simply absurd, outlandish even. And yet here we are.
The steep “Leave” trend, however, in the xenophobic and pensioner-rich middle class enclaves of the North East and Midlands was expected, but the bitter truth is that it was Corbyn’s polarising leadership bid that splintered those red-rose strongholds and so compromised the voice of Labour’s “Remain” proponents. And now on the eve of chaos, he has been served a motion of no confidence.
But as Iain Martin of CapX put it in the wee hours, “Labour: it’s the fault of the Tories. Tories: it’s the fault of Labour”.
Undoubtedly, one of the first seismic political tremors following the result occurred when David Cameron emerged from 10 Downing Street at 08:18 just moments after rumours had swept along the rope line of the press that he would be resigning.
At the podium he began by championing democracy, thanking those who took part on “my side of the argument”, and congratulating the opposition, stating categorically that “the will of the British people is an instruction that must be respected.” He swiftly went on to reassure the markets, the armies of investors, and those Brits living abroad as well as those non-British EU citizens living here that there would be no immediate changes, stressing the need for preparations for negotiations to ensure the interests of “all parts of our United Kingdom” are heard. That rather cemented the trajectory of his speech, and sure enough, he was soon expressing how proud he was to have been Britain’s PM these past six years and listing his government’s achievements, before insisting we must “confront, not duck, big decisions”. This, he said, was that so quintessentially British spirit that saw the first coalition government in seventy years being forged in 2010, a “fair, legal and decisive” referendum in Scotland, and the EU negotiations he carried out with his “head, heart and soul”. That’s when he delivered the words that we were all expecting to hear, that he was not the “captain” to steer the country in this new direction, and while giving no precise timetable, that there must be a new prime minister in time for the Conservative conference in October. “Delivering stability” was the priority he emphasised, with a Cabinet meeting scheduled for Monday and the Bank of England taking steps to ensure this stability. He said he had already spoken to the Queen and will be attending the European Council next week to formally explain Britain’s decision. He finished on a note of solidarity, encouraging “those on the losing side” to help make it work, because ultimately, Britain is a “special” country, driven by its astonishing history of science, arts, engineering, creativity, and though certainly not perfect, it can be and will remain a model of a multi-racial, multi-faithed nation. “I am the first to praise our incredible strengths,” he concluded, voice breaking, “I love this country and I’ve been honoured to serve it.”
MP Anna Soubry hailed the PM moments later on the BBC for his “beautiful composure”, looking rather shell-shocked as she described how he “led from the front” and how sincerely she hopes “this won’t cloud our memory of him”, while across the Channel MEP Philippe Lamberts condemned him as “utterly irresponsible” on the doorstep of the HQ in Brussels.
Of course, Cameron really had no other option than to resign. As Salmond dryly remarked to the BBC earlier this morning, “I have some experience in this field”. And so, the three month leadership battle begins. Johnson, May, Davidson, Crabb… whoever emerges on top, it will be a sensationalist Tory pseudo-drama of Freudian proportions.
But much caution has already been expressed over the rapidity of implementing Article 50, with many prominent “Leave” politicians encouraging cool-headed patience and negotiations. And yet, Corbyn appeared on BBC1 at 07:30 saying it should be invoked “now”, a reminder of his reluctance at backing the EU at all given his long history of resistance against the establishment, the status quo, the bureacracy. He did, after all, express his support for the EU at only “7 and a 1/2”, whatever the hell that means. And now speculation is stirring that Corbyn will be ousted by the end of the week.
Speaking of speculation, Carney emerged after the night’s global turmoil in the wake of Cameron’s resignation to reassure the markets that the banks were fully backed with a £250 billion reserve ready to secure credit for both households and businesses. It was at the sight of the Newcastle signal fire that the pound, which had soared to around $1.50 against the dollar right before the vote, plummeted to its lowest level since 1985. The FTSE was down 500 points at its open, Barclays bank tanked 35%, with RBS and Lloyds quickly following, and shockwaves rippled though the Nikkei. Expressions of Britain’s bad judgement appeared in morning papers across the globe, from the New York Times to El Mundo, with Obama receiving a “briefing” on the result in the White House around 6am. Indeed, some have hailed this disturbing realisation of xenophobia, regression and isolationism as the harbinger of everything from the resurgence of Europe’s far-right groups to the wall-building, Muslim-banning madness that would be a Trump presidency. Sensationalism aside, the EU has been guaranteed at least two years of uncertainty.
As for Scotland, we now know that every council area across the nation voted to stand with the EU, and Nicola Sturgeon just made her assurance from Bute House that preparations for a second referendum will now begin. She was careful not to confirm it, but that is undoubtedly the trajectory we are now on. Indeed, the weight of the Glasgow result at 2am temporarily tipped the total national count into a “Remain” majority. The consensus in Scotland is beyond doubt, but the case for independence of course will now be made even more complex and polarising by the reality of a Britain outside the EU and an EU rocked by the messy exit of its second largest economy. Of course there is the possibility that “Brexit” will now trigger any number of copycat referendums in the most traditionally Eurosceptic countries from Greece and Spain to Latvia and Hungary, not to mention the looming spectre of potential bank runs.
It may just be that the EU was the crucial pressure point on the windowpane of the UK. Now it has been hit with such surgical precision, spidery cracks have bloomed across it, obscuring all beyond. A second independence referendum will be the tap that shatters it forever. But, there will be two Nationalist reactions. Sturgeon has made her position clear, while expressing respect for those No-voters who will want to rationally reevaluate their position. However, many senior figures within the SNP leadership, Humza Yousaf among them, will be reluctant to use Brexit as a vehicle for statehood. For one thing currency is now even more of a roadblock. It will have to be the Euro or a brand new currency, perhaps pegged to the pound. Also, there is the simple reality that Scotland receives £9 billion per year from Westminster while juggling a deficit three times the size of the rest of the UK, particularly problematic given the lack of oil revenue. And we must remember that over a million people voted to leave the EU and the SNP would certainly not want to initiate a referendum that would most likely take place in 2017-18 without being certain of victory. There would also need to be a border, a proper, real-life border between Scotland and England. But there is now a new independence case for previous No-voters to consider. There is not space here to elaborate just quite yet, particularly in the swirling Charybdis that is today, but yes… there is certainly a case.
The fact remains that 17 million is a lot of people, a hell of a lot, and yet it’s not even a third of the UK’s population. Nor is it actually a majority of the electorate, despite the record turnout. The result was so close that a 72% turnout didn’t give “Leave” over 50% of the votes when those other 10 million-ish people who couldn’t or wouldn’t fill out a ballot are taken into account. Just look at the demographics. 64% of 18-24 year olds nationwide voted “Remain”, while 58% of 65+ year olds voted “Leave”. If, as in the Scottish referendum, the 1.5 million 16-17 year olds in the UK had been granted the vote, the nation would have awoken to very different news this morning. Instead, our futures have been decided by the oldest generation to the detriment of all.
Marina Hyde of The Guardian took to Twitter this morning to muse over Farage’s comment that “this is a victory for ordinary people, decent people”, pointing out that all us Remainers are therefore extraordinarily indecent. Indeed, we are the “indecent minority”, as JK Rowling wryly replied.
From the terribly bitter and painful ashes of this referendum, several things will rise. The question and intense likelihood of a second Scottish referendum, the question of a possible Irish referendum, the question of fresh party leaders for both the Tories and Labour, the question of the timing and logistics of Article 50, the question of citizenship for Brits abroad and Europeans here at home, and the question of trade and foreign relations now we have cut ourselves loose from the continent.
Not all of these things will survive the battle to wing their way across the sun-splashed skies, but the ones that do will determine the future of this isle full of noises in every single possible sense of the word.
Shantih Shantih Shantih